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06/16/2014 08:29 EDT | Updated 08/16/2014 05:59 EDT

How Harper Should Speak About Climate Change

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
BERLIN, GERMANY - MARCH 27: German Chancellor Angela Merkel (not seen) and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper attend a press conference after their meeting in the chancellery, Berlin, Germany on March 27, 2014. (Photo by Cuneyt Karadag/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

When it comes to tackling climate change, Canada has mostly avoided any semblance of a frank debate on why this matters and how best this should be done.

That changed last week, sort of.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper used the occasion of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's visit to Ottawa to give his most honest and direct explanation for Canadian climate change policy under his watch. He said: "No country is going to undertake actions on climate change --no matter what they say, no country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country. We are just a little more frank about that..."

For clarity of argument and expression, the prime minister's statement scores high. But the frankness in realpolitik shared by him reveals a deeply-held belief shared by many that environmental action hurts economic growth.

This remains the single-most compelling argument against governments and societies taking action to reduce carbon emissions. It reinforces the generational divide bedevilling this already tough public policy problem, implying "you" will pay now but "someone else" will benefit later. It highlights costs of action in the present while obscuring that those costs will be higher in the future due to delay in taking actions. And it does not mention that there are economic costs to a country from the changing climate itself, through extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, forest fires and storm surges.

Most of all, this line of argument reinforces the idea that the environment and economy are an either/or choice. Societies must choose between one or the other, not one and the other. Believe that and Mr. Harper's frankness is welcome, refreshing, and satisfying, perhaps as it was meant to be. Regardless, we are left with the inevitable conclusion that little more will be done because little more can be done.

This has been the pattern for climate change policy in Canada -- frankly -- for years.

From Kyoto to Copenhagen, new targets for greenhouse gas reductions have been regularly locked, loaded, and launched, before languishing. Repeated cases of "ready, fire, aim."

Absent have been sufficient policies and measures to meet those targets. Present have been a series of qualifiers on why we cannot.

Missing most of all has been a persistent conversation with Canadians on why this is important and what it will take to accomplish. That is striking because when it comes to a similar inter-generational public policy issue involving tough, competing choices -- deficits and debt, for example -- those same politicians do not hesitate to speak so frankly.

The costs of eliminating the deficit are set out in the budget numbers while the costs of not doing so -- higher taxes and reduced services for our children and grandchildren -- are in the budget speech, like this year's. "Financial prudence now leads to financial prosperity in the future," it intoned. "When governments run prolonged deficits, they are spending money that belongs to future generations."

The same model could and should be used for tackling climate change. The federal government is taking six years to eliminate its deficit, adjusting along the way to keep jobs and growth coming, but keeping their eye on the prize. The public is familiar with it. Governments have practice in achieving it. And, it has worked.

Grafting a frank deficit/debt conversation on to an equally frank climate conversation would go like this: "Climate change is creating an unacceptable economic burden on future generations." Then: "There is a cost to acting on climate change and a cost to not acting on climate change and here's what they are." Finally: "Progress will be difficult at times, results not immediate, and we will have to adjust along the way to make sure we get there while taking care of jobs and people."

If frankness is the new ingredient for climate policy action, then governments and opposition leaders should state as much up front. Then, they could frame the economic and environmental choices before us as a country in deciding to meet, or not, stated climate goals.

In today's dismal "talking points politics," the frank politician is celebrated as a breath of fresh air.

But frankness in the pursuit of inaction is no virtue.

David McLaughlin is Strategic Advisor on Sustainability at the University of Waterloo and former President and CEO of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy

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